25th Anniversary Series Blog 7
25th Anniversary Series Blog 7 Libraries of Today, Libraries of Tomorrow The year 2000 marked the second turn of a century for public libraries in Ireland. With the availability of all the power and wonder of today’s technological world, one could assume that the goals of modern public library system would be a far cry […]
25th Anniversary Series Blog 7
Libraries of Today, Libraries of Tomorrow
The year 2000 marked the second turn of a century for public libraries in Ireland. With the availability of all the power and wonder of today’s technological world, one could assume that the goals of modern public library system would be a far cry from those of the 1900s version of the movement. And yet the modern system’s primary focus remains inextricably linked to that established at the very beginning of the public library movement – to educate and serve the needs of the people.
When reflecting on the 1900s public libraries of Ireland, the movement could be viewed as securing considerable success. In their early decades of existence, the libraries emerged to enjoy exceptional success in urban centres, then later expanding into rural areas and subsequently progressing into a country-wide service. The national demand for the service was evident, to which the response was remarkable.
The latter decades of the 1900s proved challenging to public libraries in Ireland, when the movement entered into a repeated cycle of growth and stagnancy. Ireland was recovering from decades of political unrest, and endured crippling economic recessions, hindering almost all desires for steady progress in public library development.
However, entering the 21st century, the period from the late 1990s to the late 2000s was to bring a financial boon to the movement, echoing the success of Carnegie benevolence 100 years prior. Ireland experienced a period of substantial economic growth, delivering a public library service rivaling international standards.
Shining a Light on the Public Library Service
In 2011 and 2016, the Carnegie UK Trust (CUKT) conducted research on the use of and attitudes towards public libraries across the United Kingdom and Ireland. The results of the report – Shining a Light – provide an interesting analysis on how libraries in today’s information age are utilised, and the expectations, wants and needs of the public in relation to personal and communal use.
The 2016 CUKT report revealed more positive and affirming statistics than perhaps expected, given the discussion on the relevance of libraries in this time. The data revealed that almost 80% of Irish people felt public libraries are important for their local communities and 44% believed they were important for themselves personally. Additionally, 50% of people had used their public library within the previous year.
Those with children in their household were more likely to use the service, indicating the value of public libraries to the younger generations. Readership (defined as books that are read in any format, be it a physical book, on an e-reader, or an audio book), being the most identifiable utilisation of the public library, returned consistent figures across user analysis data, but also – and quite significantly – provided insight into the more diverse ways in which public libraries are used.
While there was a notable relationship between library use and prolific readership, ‘30% of people who rarely or never read books’ still frequented their local public library to access other services and resources. And curiously, as for the ‘humble book’ versus the ‘alluring tech-world’ debate, results displayed the relevance of both – with 60% stating improvement in the range and quality of books important, and 58% specifying the desire for better IT services. The public library as a communal space was also championed, with creative and maker spaces proving important to 67% of those queried and 55% stating a preference for the offering of more events (1).
With such an array of strong and supportive figures all advocating public library services, popular opinion clearly positions the public library as a respected, valued and, ultimately, well-used service within the community.
Public Libraries Ireland – Strategic Planning
Since the origins of the Public Library Act, 1855, the public library service has been continuously reviewed at national and local levels, as part of the government’s role in overseeing the implementation of successive public library legislation. In 1998, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government published Branching Out: A New Public Library Service, which focused on ‘providing equal access for all to information, support life-long learning and community-based support for literacy training and reading’ (2).
Entering the 21st Century, the public libraries movement sought to position itself by responding to how rapidly the digital world was influencing information accessibility. In 2008, Branching Out: Future Directions (2008 to 2012) was published. The Branching Out strategies provided a framework to modernize public libraries and deliver on technological advances of the day. Capital funding programmes improved ‘library buildings, opening hours, ICT, stock, staffing and staff training’ (2). The Branching Out strategies provided an inclusive vision for public libraries and informed a thorough and grounded national policy that transformed services, buildings and resources.
All told, between 1998 and 2008, €31 million was invested into public libraries by the exchequer, which was co-funded by local authorities and led to 95 new libraries nationwide (2).
Imperative to the public libraries movement in Ireland at this time was the establishment of Libraries Development in 2012 within the Local Government Management Agency, which continues the functions of An Chomhairle Leabharlanna (The Library Council). Libraries Development works with local authorities and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in the development of public library services in Ireland (3).
In the hopes of building on the impressive momentum of the Branching Out strategies, the next strategy – Opportunities for All (2013 to 2017) – was published in 2013, albeit in quite a different economic climate to the previous two strategies. Unemployment rates were high and increasing population rates posed challenges. Overall, society was changing rapidly, especially in relation to how information was accessed, and this revolutionised life for many. The Opportunities for All strategy set forth an ambitious aim – to further develop library services to meet the ‘informational, learning and cultural needs of individuals and communities’. Despite the national economic recession, this strategy built on the success of the previous two and identified three key areas: economic, social and cultural developments. Investment was on a smaller scale than before and focused on providing services that could be delivered to meet the needs of users (2).
Essential to the Opportunities for All strategy was its goal to contribute to the country’s economic recovery. To this end, a network of libraries with the intent to deliver ‘information, learning skills and creativity’ and guide ‘access to quality information, ideas and knowledge’ was proposed. Furthermore, the strategy aimed to develop social well-being and community cohesion, as well as position libraries as spaces of cultural development and identity (2).
The previous three public library strategies helped configure a service responsive to and reflective of societal needs, both at a national and international level. However, the nature of society is such that change and evolution is firmly at its core, and so the public libraries service plan is never truly complete, but routinely addresses the ever-emerging new needs of users.
Our Public Libraries 2022 is the current strategy informing public library development. Its aim is to not merely to continue on the success of previous strategies, but to focus on a 21st century public service, adapting and modifying services to meet the expectations of a rapidly developing society and thus maintaining its relevancy. This strategy focuses on three principal programmes – reading and literacy development, learning and information, and community and culture (2).
Your Public Library Service – Today
Ireland’s public library service has made substantial progress in the past two decades by remaining focused on three common objectives that have been vital to its development: providing a service that embraces technological opportunities, is responsive to user needs, and is more accessible to people and communities.
All public libraries in Ireland now operate through a single shared system, allowing members access to 330 public libraries and one shared catalogue managed by Libraries Ireland. Every public library utilizes the same library management system, allowing for a seamless, quick and easy access to a collection of more than 12 million books, movies, journals and much more (4). Significant elements of this service include:
- The public library service is now a free service for all, nationwide (2).
- It is a local service possessing a nationwide reach, allowing members to benefit from all libraries across the country, including borrowing items from and returning to any library (2).
- It offers a pioneering service, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, whereby a national catalogue can be accessed and is supported by a nationwide delivery service. Items can be ordered online or in person at any library branch (2).
- It provides access to a vast e-collection – more than 400 e-learning courses, 17,000 e-books and 7,000 e-audio books – as well as 300 international magazines and 1,300 newspapers (2).
- It delivers national programmes relevant to societal needs – Right to Read (literacy and reading), Healthy Ireland at Your Library (government initiative informing the public on health-related matters) and Work Matters (employment, entrepreneurial, start-ups and job seekers information) (2).
- It has a significant cultural role; e.g., delivering and coordinating both the Decade of Centenaries 2012–2022 and Creative Ireland 2017–2022 (2).
- It operates under a set of Public Library National Standards and Benchmarks which guide the development of the library service (2).
Your Fingal Public Library Service
The region of Fingal has experienced much growth and change in the past two decades, welcoming great diversity and vibrancy to the area. The library services have responded acutely to this societal shift and continue to evolve in concert with the natural, ongoing transformations of its local communities.
Since the establishment of Fingal in 1994, its public libraries have offered progressive and innovative services as well as adopted new technologies and work practices. New branch libraries have been built and developed, while existing buildings have been renovated and enhanced (two of which – Baldoyle Library and Rush Library – boast prestigious award-winning designs).
Determined to remain relevant and meet modern-day standards and expectations, Fingal’s libraries have kept technology at the forefront of their development, offering self-service RFID technology to users, increasing the number of digital resources and eServices, and providing user-friendly print stations. Even more recently, the libraries have entered the fascinating world of state-of-the-art, high-tech robotics and 3D printers in addition to investing in high-specification computer systems and creative spaces.
All ten Fingal library branches have adopted a new, internationally recognised and utilised library management system, and a new and efficient book distribution system has been introduced. Four brand-new, fully equipped mobile library vans have launched, thus delivering a library service that spans the entire county and connects all citizens with their public libraries (5).
But the developments don’t stop there! With the intent to build on their previous successes in the investment in and refurbishment of library buildings, Fingal libraries are already planning future development, with Skerries library being the next scheduled to receive renovations.
Furthermore, one key ambition of the next five years is certain to propel Fingal Libraries into a new stage of library development – the 21st century County Library in the Swords Cultural Quarter. The proposals for this project envision a dynamic and inclusive space and a cultural hub, marrying both the traditional and evolving roles of the public library service and creating a space in which personal and community needs will be central to its function.
Across the county, Fingal Libraries will continue to offer ‘accessible, democratic and inclusive spaces, in which people can engage, enjoy, create and learn’ (5).
The 21st-Century Public Library
Public libraries have always been at the heart of the communities they serve. They are the portal to a shared bank of accurate and reliable knowledge, and act as gateways in accessing information. Often the scrutiny of debate in recent years, their existence and relevance has been called into question as we find ourselves in a world ever evolving in how knowledge and information are accessed and disseminated. Despite strong challenges, public libraries have prevailed and are enjoying a resurgence in interest and membership, and are providing for their local community in ever increasing ways.
The 21st century marked a turning point in libraries, presenting major challenges yet considerable opportunities in public library service. The advent of new technology has transformed how we, personally and as a society, interact with and access information. Our reading and research practices have altered considerable, and at a rapid rate. However, innate to us as human beings and as a society, our need for a shared, community-centred space to both acquire information and connect with others is unlikely to change. As such, public libraries have embraced innovation and community, and have expanded their services to stay relevant and meet expectations of users in an age in which reliance of technology has all but become a staple in peoples’ lives.
The Hybrid Public Library
The changing face of public libraries in recent years has prompted debate to a degree that some question the necessity of even having a physical structure in which to house information. With access to information available on the go, every moment of every day, the very need for public libraries has been a hot topic. However, this reductionist view of library services stands as a weak argument against the actual reality of the role of libraries in regard to information.
Addressing this debate, public libraries have evolved into spaces where the physical and digital sit side by side. The regular visitor to the library, wishing to be met with a traditional service is equally as catered for as the individual requiring easy, fast and reliable access to the digital world. Thus, the public library of today can be considered a hybrid library – one catering to the past through archival material, the present day in all the myriad of ways in which knowledge is available, and to the future, ready to adapt and respond to the technological world in which we live.
The term hybrid library is one which has emerged in the past two decades, referring to libraries as the tangible place from which traditional, print-based materials are collected and available for public use, to the fully digital space serving as gateways to networked resources (6). Ireland’s contemporary network of 330 public libraries has adapted and altered itself to suit the expectations and requirements of its users.
How public libraries continue to develop will depend largely on how technology itself develops and how local communities inform the service. Libraries will be expected to evolve in unison with these communities and, much as they have in the past two decades, provide relevant and necessary services – along with a physical space for communities to converge.
Public Libraries & The Information Age
The considerations discussed above have dominated the world of public libraries in the past few decades and inform the queries as to what direction libraries of the future will take. But as both the differing means to gathering information remain popular, perhaps the argument at play in this debate is a matter of preference, which prompts focus on the root of the question – that of information itself.
A unique purpose of libraries is to collate information and to make it publicly available in all formats – print and electronic. Challenging this role is the world of communication technology and its explosive impact on the extent and immediacy of information available. This level of access not only allows people the means to receive information, anytime and anywhere, but also the ability to generate and disseminate it as well. The great strength of the technological world is its wide range of content, provided by an extensive gamut of providers, right at one’s fingertips. However, this could also be seen as its greatest weakness and poses a crucial question as to the quality, reliability and relevance of information.
This growing focus on standards in information reinforces the importance of the role of the professional librarian. Librarians are at the forefront of understanding information and research gathering. And just like the role of the public library growing and adapting to meet the needs of its communities, the role of the librarian has also evolved to understand and utilise new technologies to better assist and guide library users, but crucially, to constantly implement their knowledge when qualifying standards in information.
Public libraries are now hubs of technology and will transform and evolve as the technology itself does. As public libraries continue to evolve, the routes to information will progress in accordance to how society delves deeper into the digital age, but a guaranteed constant in the library service will be its commitment to quality, reliability and relevance of information.
Public Libraries – Changing Spaces
The objective of public libraries is to purposefully serve their local community’s needs, and as these needs shift and alter, so too do the goals of the library as they respond accordingly. With the ever-changing landscape of digital technology and the ease of access to information, the physical landscape of the public library is transforming to accommodate new services, whereby space is redefined in innovative and organic ways. What once visually read as a public library space – the dark and dusty room – is now gradually phased out to welcome spacious, bright and user-friendly forms, communicating the redesign of modern-day public library spaces where personal and communal zones are readily provided.
Today’s public libraries are no longer only repositories for books but are defined by the needs of a dynamically changing society. As gateways to information, education, recreation, opportunity and community, the design and utilisation of the public library spaces adapts and unfolds in response.
Increasingly libraries are acknowledging and replying to the communal needs of society, and as communities progressively turn to their public library to serve their needs, the library continues to reciprocate with new facilities and services. Community-focused spaces have entered into the common lexicon of library use in recent years, and as this trend progresses, more and more public libraries are adapting to house the expanding multiple new technologies in demand by the public. Furthermore, public libraries are recognising the need for citizens to feel connected and rooted within their local communities, prompting the need for creative, recreation and, quite simply, hang-out spaces. The public library is gradually growing into the local community hub, whereby public needs are addressed easily and readily. Libraries are offering a sense of place. A sense of community.
One such trend which is transforming public libraries across the globe is the Makerspace movement. The Makerspace is a defined physical space within the public library design which is utilised as a communal creative space focusing on creativity (innovation, experimentation, and exploration), collaboration and sharing. It allows individuals gather to share knowledge and ideas, access equipment and guidance, and learn new skills, all within a mentor-led, informal learning environment. It addresses the innate needs of human beings to create, to make, and, ultimately, to connect. With regards to information, the maker movement encompasses all the principles of a public library, from being a hub of knowledge and life-long learning, to public libraries being custodians of information practicing information management and dissemination, to connecting people and information of all kinds. The one variant of the makerspace, which embodies this new trend, is how we are witnessing relationships with information evolve – those who access information are no longer solely consumers or providers, but information creators. The Makerspace allows the capacity to generate new information – participation with information is no longer a passive event but an active endeavour.
Thus, public libraries are all-inclusive in their response to society. They serve not just the prolific reader or dedicated researcher, but they are welcoming spaces to makers, families, entrepreneurs, community groups and much more. As the definition of public library services expands, their spaces modify and conform in response. Possibly libraries of the future will house multiple services not yet imagined, but for certain, the impetus to respond to community will be forever as the central core of the public library movement.
By Laura Flanagan, Fingal Libraries
Next Monday, August 19th: Fingal Libraries
We hope you join us!
For your interest:
Fingal Libraries Local Studies and Archives is a repository of photographs and documents, private and donated collections, encapsulating visual and literary snapshots of Fingal and the Dublin area through history.
It is a treasure trove for anyone looking to unearth the rich culture and heritage that is the region of Fingal. Staff are exceptionally knowledgeable and always willing to help in your research.
Thanks to Catherine, Brian and Karen for allowing access to archives for this blog series.
Research material used in the blog series can be found through the Encore catalogue on Libraries Ireland website:
University of the People: celebrating Ireland’s public libraries: the Thomas Davis lectures 2002. An Chomhairle Leabharlanna. 2003 Call No. 027.4415
Public libraries in the 21st century : defining services and debating the future / Anne Goulding. 2006. Call No. 027.44
A history of literacy and libraries in Ireland : the long traced pedigree / Mary Casteleyn. 1984. Call No. 027.0415 Ireland
Irish Carnegie Libraries : A Catalogue and Architectural History / Grimes, Brendan. 1998. Call No. 027.4415
Dublin Libraries : A Pictorial Record / Lennon, Sean. 2001. Call No. 027.0418
Another invaluable resource during research included the Irish Newspaper Archive, available for use on public PCs at your local Fingal Library.
(1) Carnegie UK Trust. Shining a Light: The future of Public Libraries across the UK and Ireland. Available from: https://d1ssu070pg2v9i.cloudfront.net/pex/carnegie_uk_trust/2017/04/Policy-Report-Shining-a-Light.pdf [Accessed 7th August 2019].
(2) Government of Ireland. Our Public Libraries 2022: Inspiring, Connecting and Empowering Communities. Available from: https://www.lgma.ie/en/about-us/libraries-development/our-public-libraries-2022.pdf [Accessed 7th August 2019].
(3) Local Government Management Agency. Library Developmet. Available from: https://www.lgma.ie/en/ [Accessed 7th August 2019].
(4) Libraries Ireland. Available from: https://www.librariesireland.ie/ [Accessed 8th August 2019].
(5) Fingal County Council. Fingal Libraries Development Plan 2018 – 2023. Available from: http://fingalcoco.ie/media/Fingal%20Libraries%20Development%20Plan%202018-23.pdf [Accessed 8th August 2019].
(6) Oppenheim C., Smithson D. What is the Hybrid Library?. Journal of Information Science. 1999; 25(2): 97-112. Available from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/016555159902500202 [Accessed 9th August 2019]